What matters more than God

I write a lot about God and atheism. That’s because I find value in living with both eyes open, and because I think God goes away (that is, the concept “God” loses its function) when we live with both eyes open. Atheism has been an important step in my own intellectual journey, and so I’m happy to share my reasons for disbelief with others.

But.

God–or more precisely, belief or disbelief in God–isn’t actually all that important. That is, believing or not believing in God doesn’t make the biggest existential difference for most people (in my estimation–I haven’t actually surveyed anyone). What could be more important than whether or not a benevolent superpower created the world and everything in it, you ask?

Death.

Life after death.

Or, as I see it, the fact that there is no life after death, that death is the end of all conscious experience (for the organism that dies).

The most existentially important realization I’ve had, and I think, one of the most existentially important realizations anyone can have, is that my life will end, and there is no hereafter. This is it. This one small shot at living well, and then the lights go out. Of course, I can’t imagine not thinking, what with my own nonexistence being quite literally inconceivable from a first-person standpoint. But the realization that this life is it is life-changing.

More life-changing, I contend, than whether or not there is a God.

The two are hard to separate of course. For most religious folk I know, the belief in an afterlife is all bundled up with belief in a benevolent diety. As some of my undergrads have asked, what’s the point of believing in God if there’s no afterlife? What indeed!

I have no plans to halt my attacks on (the idea of) God. But I thought I’d take a minute to meditate on this wonderful, profound, recalibrating thought.

We’re all going to die.

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Two baptist gods

I became an atheist because I became convinced that Christians didn’t have any special epistemic access to God. Or, to put the thought a bit differently, it became apparent to me that, beneath the many gods worshiped by Christians (even within my own small denomination) there was no true “God” to be found. God really is just whatever we think he is (which is why, as feminists note, he is so often a he–but that’s a rant for another day).

Here’s an example. In the small Baptist denomination I came of age in (the Baptist General Conference, or “BGC”), two popular pastors have become very famous for their very different pictures of God. According to Greg Boyd, God is the ultimate source of the universe, but he does not preside over the world like a meticulous architect. He is rather like an artist looking for co-creators. And so, while he may arrange for some things to happen, much of what happens on Earth is not in accordance with his will. The choices of human beings (and of invisible spiritual agents!) are causally important, as is sheer dumb luck. Prayer, on Greg’s view, exerts causal pressure on the world to change it. Christians, on this model, are individuals who have chosen to follow God and who at any moment can act with or against God’s purposes. If they fail to act (through prayer, or some other means), it is possible that God’s will might be thwarted. Though God is in principle “omnipotent” then, he does not exercise that power. Which is just to say that, practically speaking, God is not omnipotent on this model.

According to John Piper, God is not only the ultimate source of the universe, of right and wrong, and of everything everywhere, but he is also the causal source of everything that happens everywhere. If something happens, it is because God has willed it. Though prayer can be said to “change things”, prayer itself is seen as God’s foreordained means for making things happen. God’s will, in other words, cannot be thwarted. Whether someone lives a long happy life, a short miserable life, or whether someone is “saved” or burns in hell for ever and ever… it is all, on this model, because of God and to the glory of God. (Though I should note that Piper does think human beings are responsible for their actions, in spite of their being foreordained, which is why God is not a moral monster for sending sinners to hell.)

If we were to boil down (a bit artificially, I admit) each model to a single buzz word, we could say that, on Greg’s view, the love of God is supreme, and on John’s view, the glory of God is supreme. Of course, each pastor claims to view God as both loving and glorious, but clearly, that plays out differently for each of them. For Greg, the glory of God is his love–and human beings can know what love is without too much hassle. It’s not a big puzzle. For John, God’s glory is his love of himself (since he is so glorious)–a love into which (some) human beings are invited. But human beings, on John’s model, don’t really know what love is until they fall on their knees in front of God (said falling, of course, being itself foreordained for some, but not all, of us).

Let me now state the obvious: these are two different gods.

And, as both pastors are fond of noting in their published works, one’s picture of God is essential in structuring one’s religious and spiritual practice. Which is why followers of Boyd and of Piper (umm, I mean, of Jesus, of course) are so different. Are there similarities? Yes, of course. Enough similarities to warrant calling the Jesus and God of Boyd and Piper the same? Ehh… that’d be stretching it.

For anyone who has traveled a bit–whether literally (geographically) or figuratively (by going to a church of a different denomination, say)–the fact that Christians follow and worship different gods is no surprise. It turns out people tend to follow a god who serves their needs. Not their superficial needs, mind you (like for a new car or bike or lover, or whatever), but their existential needs. Most Christians will refuse to admit this. But it sorta jumps out at anyone who cares to learn a little about different denominations and religions. The fact is, different denominations are different religions. The names of some of the symbols are the same (“Jesus”, “God”, etc.), but the concepts and the practices vary as widely as do human lives.

I suppose there could be a true God and a true Jesus hiding behind all the wrappings and trappings. But then the question remains: how do we learn about such a God? And how do we know this isn’t just another human version?

My preferred explanation will be obvious: there is no God behind all the gods. It’s all wrappings and trappings.

Nationalism and humanism

To be a humanist, as I understand it, is to be concerned with the well-being of all human beings (at the very least–all sentient beings at the most). As a humanist therefore, I’m no fan of patriotism. I understand that patriotism can be ironic in a way–not unlike the team spirit of some sports fans who, in their more detached moments, view their allegiance to this or that team as grounded in ultimately contingent facts. But patriotism often has not been ironic in this way. And, I want to suggest, ironic patriotism isn’t really patriotism. Ask any true patriot.

So tomorrow being the Fourth of July, I’m looking forward to time off work (mostly for my partner, who has a ‘real’ job). I’m looking forward to time with family. If we catch fireworks, that’ll be nice too (actually, I think they’re tonight). But I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the nationalistic fervor that often accompanies this holiday. And I submit that people with humanist leanings should always accompany their whole-hearted celebration of life, family, food, and even national history, with a wary sense of the way in which patriotic mythology functions to hide from us the ugly truths of this nation’s past and present.

So happy Fourth of July! And remember, you’re not a unique and precious snowflake. And your country is mediocre at best. And yet, may both you and your country improve.

And yes, that includes me too.